19.12.19

IF YOU DIDN'T WANT TO GO TO MINNEAPOLIS, WHY DID YOU GET ON THE TRAIN?

Inside Higher Ed gives space to an anonymous "Junior Prof" who suggests "Academe should value research and publication outside of peer-review metrics."  No.  Seriously.
Many researchers, me included, find the idea that you should only publish in certain venues limiting, frustrating and fraught with problems. The claims listed above are oversimplifications that erase the nuance of peer-review publication truths. Individuals in our profession would like to claim that if someone has good ideas and research that supports them, they will get their ideas published, but many of us know it isn’t that simple.

The peer-review process leaves the fate of someone’s research findings subject to the whims of two or three people who, like all of us, are influenced by variables including their own natural preferences for certain kinds of work.
He's not totally wrong, academic research, like any other human endeavor, is subject to fads and preference cascades, and there is nothing quite so draining as interviewing for an area specialist to hear the same set of au courant phrases, e.g. "Lucas critique" or "unit root" from eight straight job candidates (that's the four hours before lunch ...): and I bet there's an awful lot of brain-power squandered going through the solicitations for grants and the lists of grants awarded in the previous quarter, in order that a scholar's research might be sold more along the lines of what gets funded, rather than along the lines of what that scholar might actually be able to add to the conversation, for that's what the world of scholarly publication is, a conversation.
In any discipline, there is no lack of interesting and profound questions, but the publish-or-perish mentality does skew research efforts, why else is the expression "minimal publishable unit" a term of art? In any discipline, there are also journals people read, and journals that exist solely to provide solace. But even before improved database management made possible the daily updating of journal, article, and researcher impact factors, departmental promotion committees understood what a strong contribution was, and what vita padding was, and at the college or university level, everybody understood the way a case might be spun, and establishing the requisite regional or national or international reputation couldn't rest on a list of publications in the journals that provide solace.
But if you want to be a public intellectual first, maybe find yourself an opportunity to write opinion columns for the local newspaper and pray for syndication, or get yourself a web journal and build up a following.
Perhaps the most important argument in favor of varying publication venues: peer-reviewed publications are simply not the only place where intellectual conversations are happening and where a researcher might want to share their ideas. In fact, non-peer-reviewed publications, especially the ones that don’t have paywalls, have the potential to reach far more people and result in a much more stimulating dialogue. Researchers concerned with social justice will also rightfully point out the elitism that peer-reviewed publication tends to reinforce. These publication venues reify notions of membership within intellectual communities and keep cutting-edge research in the hands of relatively few people.

My personal commitment to increased acceptance of non-peer-reviewed publication venues stems from a desire to engage the university -- often regarded both as a presence in a community and separate from it -- in a larger, more inclusive conversation. I also find writing for different groups of people, including my students, personally fulfilling. The peer-review pipeline can be disheartening, and writing for other audiences is a source of meaning making when your research might otherwise feel too niche or siloed to create a larger impact.

My students are more likely to engage with newspaper articles, YouTube videos or op-ed pieces that are related to course material than a peer-reviewed alternative. I publish in non-peer-reviewed venues and will continue to do so for the duration of my career for a whole host of reasons, and I imagine that many of you elect to do so for an even broader set of rationales.
Fine.  The point of having venues for specialist conversation is to provide a forum for testing the best arguments against the best counter-arguments.  That's no different from, say, a grandmaster chess tournament or the April golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia.  (Or, for that matter, my just-for-fun bridge columns.  I'm neither Oswald Jacoby nor have any aspirations to be one.)

What intrigues is that the aspiring public intellectual intends to use his informal writings to contribute to the specialist conversation.
I asked my chair if I could prepare a narrative describing why such non-peer-reviewed publication venues were important to me as a researcher and also made sense for my research objectives. I described the caliber, audience and potential impact of research that was made available in another format and persuaded him that this kind of work demonstrated similar levels of achievement as many peer-reviewed venues. I asked my chair to help me find a way to get this work in my tenure dossier and to be my ally in opening up a conversation with our dean about crediting alternatives to peer-reviewed publications. We put the agreement in writing, and I asked my chair and dean each to sign it.

Is our understanding bulletproof? Of course not. Will it help me to feel comfortable engaging multiple audiences and publication methods on the path toward tenure? Absolutely.
Ultimately, though, it will be the area specialists who review the tenure dossier who will help this professor's colleagues determine whether he has advanced the specialist conversation in a meaningful way.

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